As Rivani strode through the trees, following the winding river, he used the nearing hubbub as a compass, guiding him to his destination. At last, the ancient trunks parted to reveal a large clearing: lush grass blowing in the wind, the aroma of flowers wafting through the air, and the sound of quiet but excited chatter of many people, nearly two score, who were distributed about the place. He grinned tiredly, more than ready to join the festivities after the many long hours he'd worked protecting Estrevaire from various threats, both magical and mundane, this last month. Rivani wiped the last vestiges of ash from his robes— remnants from a fight with an enterprising creature from the Elemental Plane of Fire that he'd encountered this morning trying to start a forest fire and wipe out a small village. He’d been lucky to get out with only a few minor burns and some singed clothing. Unfortunately, his hunting partner, Shiento hadn’t been so lucky. The elemental had caught his childhood friend by surprise. Rivani could still see the shockingly white bone of Shiento’s shoulder shining through charred flesh and seared muscle of his weapon arm. He’d live, given proper healing, but without access to Imperial medicine, the arm would surely become useless. Shiento’s life would never be the same. These are the sacrifices we make as druids. Sighing, Rivani went to greet his people, but not before vowing silently that he’d stop by his old friend’s home to offer condolences and due thanks.
A few of the other folk— all dressed similarly to him in plain robes of mottled grey, brown, green, or some combination of the three, and sandals or soft moccasins— noticed Rivani and called him over, quickly engaging him in their debate. Rivani had to chuckle, these younger druids always had to find something to argue about. He considered chastising them, but then again, he'd been no different when he was their age. Besides, several older members of the society of forest protectors bickered just as frequently, if not more than married couples!
The field buzzed with excitement — and the droning of bees and dragonflies— as man and beast alike awaited the commencement, that this celebration might begin in earnest. No sooner had Rivani had the thought than the woman stepped upon a rough-hewn stump and rang the bell in her hand. As its clarion sound reverberated through the clearing, all other sounds ceased. As if the chime had cast an enchantment of silence, nothing, not even the birds in the trees, dared make a peep.
She was clad in a long flowing robe made of woven grass and moss, and an ornamental mask that concealed her features. Decorated with shiny stones, bird feathers, wooden trinkets, and mounted with a circlet made from stag's horns, it was clear that this woman was the leader of their circle. All men and women in the clearing, Rivani included, waited in rapt attention for this woman, the Oracle, to speak.
"All druids and apprentices in attendance, please bow your head, fold your hands, and join me in reciting the Wood's Weal prayer."
As one, the crowd shifted into their chosen positions of piety and intoned the chant they all knew by heart.
"O, revered spirits of nature, we entreat you this day! As naught more than humble guardians and caretakers of your glory, we hope today, every day preceding and those still to come, our actions please thee! Grant us the power to further combat those who wish you ill, foes both extraplanar and interplanar, and engender hope in the least and greatest of your denizens. This, we pray upon our souls, and in the names of Sun, Moon, and Star, immortal watchers. We are but tools in your hands, deva of earth, sylph of air, salamander of fire, and naiad of water! Take and use us as you see fit. Amen!"
Several moments of silence passed after their benediction was complete before the Oracle spoke again. "'Tis a pleasure to know none of you have forgotten the words. I'm waiting for the day somebody mucks it up and brings the spirits down upon us. Ah, well, we stave off nature's wrath for one day more, it seems." A laugh burbled around the gathering at the Oracle's sassy tone. "Joking aside, 'tis my absolute honor to congratulate each of you for your dedicated service to Estrevaire and the spirits. We druids are the first line of defense against the blood-magic plague of Maho and the encroaching spirits of the Distant-Planes. The people of Estrevaire rely on us, whether they know it or not, for without us, they would be overrun by demons, elementals, and other, worse threats. Now, let me not keep you from your conversation—nor your drink. I know several of you have more than a casual fondness for oliphyn, that intoxicating Tan'iir concoction." With a final tinkling laugh like wind through a siren chime, the Oracle stepped down from the stump, and the celebration commenced for real.
Rivani stared into a small pond a short way into the woods, reflecting. He'd just finished overseeing a game of hempen-toil, one of strength and strategy, the former of which his aging body wasn't so proficient with anymore. Every morning he woke with a new crick in his back, and the winter's chill brought a stiffness in his joints. But Rivani wasn't going to let a little discomfort stop him from doing the job he loved. He could still use his magic just as well, if not better than any of the other druids, and his spiritual discourse was second-to-none. It had to be since Rivani had trained under the Oracle herself, all those years ago. She'd chosen him as a guardian of nature, and he refused to let her down.
"Hail, Rivani!" a voice called from the treeline. "Somehow, I knew 'twould be here I'd find you!"
Speak of a devil, and he shall seek you. Rivani turned to greet the Oracle, no longer in her formal garb, dressed in robes and sandals like all the others. The aging druid shook his head in disbelief at the woman walking—no, springing was more like it— towards him. Somehow, the girl looked just as young and spritely as she had those many years ago, during his initiation to the druid order. Coppery red hair gleamed metallically in the sunlight, dancing around supple shoulders. Lyrical, somewhat tilted eyes, one silver, and the other gold in hue, sparkled with the pure joy of life, something Rivani hadn't seen in them for a long time. Glowing skin, seeming softer than silk, encased her whole slender body. Not a wrinkle, nor any blemish despoiled her youthful perfection.
Rivani dipped into a deep bow, or tried to at least. Halfway down, a muscle twisted in a recent battle flared in remembered pain. "Lady Oracle," he said, hoping he could hide the pain in his voice. He hated showing any weakness in front of the woman who'd trained him. Usually, his efforts were for naught, but today, it seemed the Oracle was distracted, and she failed to comment. Rivani slowly straightened up, to see the woman before him shaking her head helplessly.
"One of these days, you'll get it in your thick head that such formality hasn't a place among us."
"Very well, Cilerys," Rivani said, using the Oracle's real name. "I must ask: how is it that I keep growing older, but you remain unaffected by the passage of time?"
Cilerys winked at him. "You might have the privilege of knowing my true name, but there are things I must keep from even you. 'Twould diminish the enigma of the all-powerful Oracle, after all."
Rivani bowed, allowing his former tutor that much. "I was wondering whether you would stay and grace us with your presence today. I worried you would be kept at the grove of Quellaphae, preparing for tonight's ritual."
"And miss the festivities? Please, Rivani, I'd hoped you'd know me better than that!"
"It's been too long, Lady Oracle. I fear I forgot your tendency to seek entertainment at every juncture." They shared a laugh, but it did nothing to diminish the excitement boiling within Cilerys's eyes. Silently, he arched an eyebrow.
As if she'd been waiting for that cue, she glanced about conspiratorially and, "There is something I've been dying to tell someone, everyone, in fact, but I'm not sure it would go over well."
"And so you want to use me as your guinea pig," Rivani remarked blandly. "If I don't want to slap you after you've said your piece, you'll view it as a success."
"That's right!" Cilerys winked, and Rivani had to chuckle.
"Well, say on. I haven't all day." A bald-faced lie and both knew it.
"Here goes nothing..." She took a deep breath. "I've taken on a new apprentice."
Rivani could hardly believe his ears. "You have? That's terrific news! What has it been, thirty years?"
"Only twenty-five, Rivani," the Oracle corrected.
"Even still, it's been a long time. Everyone must be told at once!" He cocked his head, curiously at her. "What possessed you to withhold this information?"
"He's Ruqin," she answered bluntly, which rocked the older druid back on his heels.
"A foreigner?" he asked. "Why one of them?" His voice held no scorn, for which Cilerys seemed grateful.
"He shows true promise in the druidic arts," the Oracle said, somewhat defensively, in case others were listening.
"Peace, friend," Rivani granted her a smile. "I hold faith that your decision is well-founded. But it's a bold decision, for sure. If I recall my history correctly, the last druid to take on a Ruqin apprentice, Halmondaerand, was cast out and exiled."
"I know, but it's too late. I've selected Brynhildr, and I plan to keep on with his training. I observed him for a few months, before I took him in, of course. He was traveling across the land, helping and defending the people of Estrevaire, asking for no reward save a meal when he couldn't provide for himself. Doesn't he sound like the new blood this order needs?"
"If he remains true to those principles, I'm sure this Brynhildr will make a fine druid," Rivani agreed.
"'Twill be a sight finer than some of the other new apprentices. Have you seen Mathailas's?" Cilerys gestured towards the clearing, and Rivani quickly sighted his compatriot. Mathailas had a curvaceous brown-haired lass dancing around him, laughing and flushing without a care in the world.
"I doubt it were her skills in gardening which drew that wretch to young Nadine," Rivani remarked. "But, I suppose it would be too much to ask for all druids to be pure of heart and spirit."
"I'm more worried about the quality of the girl's education. It might be time to do something about that." Cilerys said cunningly. "I wonder how Mathailas would like a switch in trainees?"
"Oracle's authority, you sly dog?"
The girl only grinned cheekily. "I'd need to find a new tutor for Nadine, though. Mayhaps you, Rivani?"
The old druid shook his head. "You must be joking. My wife would slay me if I came home with news of some pretty new trainee!"
Cilerys nodded her affirmation with that sentiment. "I certainly would, in her shoes. How is dear Salisa doing? And your darling daughter; Evanna, wasn't it?"
"Salisa's doing as well as she can be, with me away all the time. More people have been traveling, so her cobbler business is taking flight at last.” His voice took on a tinge of delight. “But Evanna; oh, my daughter does me proud! Old Falsarr the apothecary took her on a while back as an apprentice. Now, becoming the head apothecary is no easy feat, but Evanna’s taking on every duty with aplomb.” Rivani couldn’t keep his chest from puffing out. “Tomorrow, Lodebrook is holding a small ceremony to celebrate her accomplishments. She’ll be a Highmender like her master in a matter of months, folk believe, far quicker than the trainees in other villages.”
“You make it sound like a competition, Rivani,” Cilerys admonished. “But, it makes good hearing to know they’re well. I wish you’d steered Evanna towards Druidry, though I understand your apprehension. Lodebrook does require a good healer, after all—given its location as a travel nexus— and ‘tis a venerable vocation. The chestnut falls not far from the bough. I've heard about your recent activity. Working yourself ragged to stave off incursions from the other planes, your skill and ethic are admirable. I'd say I'm surprised, but I did train you!"
Rivani chuckled his face glowing with the praise. "I live to serve and protect this land, as all druids should. But, I'm gladdened to know you approve of my taking leave to see my family."
"You deserve a short reprieve at the very least. But, if I may ask, when did you plan to leave?"
"I'd hoped to be on the wing by sunset," Rivani said. "Why do you ask?"
"Any chance I could convince you to stay a little longer?"
Rivani sighed and rubbed his face. "What do you need?"
"Well," Cilerys sighed, her voice becoming suddenly grim. "I never did explain why I decided to take on a new apprentice."
"Besides the loneliness and need for companionship?" Rivani joked. "I've always known you to have a taste for the exotic; I can't blame you for enticing some strapping Ruqin with his heart in the right place to join you in your sanctuary."
The Oracle flushed, giving credence to the point but shook her head at her old student's tone. "'Tis a serious matter, Rivani. You know that as guardian of the Heart Tree, Quellaphae, I must monitor and protect Estrevaire from malicious spirits. I've recently felt a stirring among the darkness, and I fear that they may try an attack soon. We are nearing the one-thousandth anniversary of the Fracture."
"Already?" Rivani asked, surprised. The druid hadn't realized it had been almost a millennium since that fateful day that left the boundaries between planar realms weak. Because of that day, many people lived in fear of creatures slipping through to wreak havoc on the Incarnate Realm. It was the reason the druidic order had been formed in the first place.
"Yes, and I need people I can trust— skilled druids willing to put their lives on the line— around me. People like Brynhildr. People like you, Rivani."
"What would you have me do?" Rivani asked, resolved.
"Tonight, I need you to do the Guardian's Ritual in the Shaldasbyrn Garden. 'Tis the most remote sanctuary, but located directly on a cross-section of powerful ley-lines. 'Twould be a tempting target, were I an extraplanar threat. The shields there are strong, so you should be fine, but I'd rather be safe than sorry."
There was really no decision to make. The Oracle and the people of Estrevaire needed his help. Without pausing, Rivani answered “You know you can count on me, Cilerys,” but his thoughts immediately went to his family and Shiento. Such is the guilt and way of life of a Druid.